Examining church’s historic cultural role

Today there are churches leaving their denominations or forcing others to leave over the issue of acceptance of homosexual people and their role within the church. Other congregations have sought to extend a welcome and acceptance to people who have been traditionally excluded by our culture. Should the church change its views on commonly held beliefs? Has the church ever changed its beliefs and if so why? If the church changes its views is it just caving in to cultural pressure?

The church was founded on the example of Jesus and Paul who were strong religious reformers. They sought to change widely held and firmly based religious practices founded on clear Biblical laws popular in their day. Both Jesus and Paul brought significantly new understandings and practices sometimes over-throwing the laws found in their Bible. Jesus and Paul both placed the “Great Commandment” of the love of God and neighbor above all other Biblical laws.

Over the centuries, practices once thought to be Biblically correct have evolved and changed within the church. Did you know the church once condemned anesthetics used by women during childbirth? Citing Genesis 3:16 it forbid women to seek relief from pain during labor. This view did not change until the mid-19th century.

The church was strongly confirmed in its condemnation of banking until the 19th century. With condemnations from no less than 20 Councils of the Church and numerous Biblical passages against the loaning of money for interest, banking was not allowed. Further, bankers could not join churches or receive the graces of the church until the church changed its position.

Churches had always held Satan controlled all lightning as “prince of the power of the air.” To install a lightning rod, once called a “heretical rod,” was discouraged for churches. It wasn’t until Benjamin Franklin’s experiments the view about lightning began to change.

Slavery was generally upheld as a Biblically acceptable practice and approved by the church, with some dissenters. It wasn’t until church dissenters of the Abolitionists movement slavery was questioned and eventually banned. Segregation by race and laws against inter-racial marriage were considered Biblically confirmed by many churches until the 1960s in the U.S. and the 1990s in South Africa.

The church fostered anti-Jewish sentiment and active persecution of Jews for centuries based on anti-Semitic teachings in the New Testament. It wasn’t until the middle of the last century that these views began to change.

Birth control was equated to murder in the doctrine of the church until the Church of England stated in 1930 birth control might be allowable under certain circumstances. Most Protestant churches followed this understanding, but it’s still denied in some denominations.

Women were excluded from ordination as clergy until the last hundred years. Slowly denominations have opened ordination to women, but many do not, sighting Biblical reasons.

So in these cases and many more not mentioned, is the church right in changing its views even when perceived to be contrary to certain Biblical passages? Over the centuries the church has changed and adapted its beliefs and practices to conform to its growing understanding of the “Great Commandment” of the love of God and neighbor which transcends every other law from scripture. Is the church then only following culture? No to the contrary. It’s the culture that has put into place centuries old prejudices and practices that exclude and diminish certain people. It’s the church’s role to lead in the transforming of the prejudices and exclusiveness of our culture by seeking the love and acceptance of all our neighbors.

Rob Jennings-Teats is the senior pastor of Carson City First United Methodist Church.


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